I finally finished reading William Hjortsberg’s “Jubilee Hitchhiker: The Life and Times of Richard Brautigan.” It is surely the most exhaustive (and exhausting) biography ever written about Richard Brautigan and one of the most brutal pieces of literary hagiography my eyes have ever peeped upon. Since undertaking this task, maybe late last winter, I wound up reading many books while “inside” of this book. This was probably inevitable because I am easily distracted – oh, listen to that washing machine whirl away! – but it was also a much-needed form of therapy as “Jubilee” was a colossal undertaking and I needed some “breather reads” to reserve my concentration; for lo, I am a burnout. The size of a miniature phone book, “Jubilee Hitchhiker” weighs around 4.5 pounds and measures approximately 10” x 7” x 2.” When I was in the earliest days of reading it, the book felt so heavy, that, as I was lying in bed with the giant paperback on my chest, it was crushing my sternum. I would have to roll on my side to breath and then roll again on my back to keep reading. It was a physical commitment.
Admittedly, I have posted many Brautigan quips/posts on a memoir piece here and on Facebook, where I have swooned on and on about my pre-adolescent discovery of his writing; a revelation that is radical at twelve yet quite-possibly-embarrassing-and-mawkish at 42. Oh well. Of course, stumbling upon someone like Brautigan when you are a confused kid is about as original as a sunburn or chickenpox. But that doesn’t make that long ago experience any less resonant for me.
Brautigan is surely best known for his 1967 book, “Trout Fishing in America,” and is mistaken for being a “hippie writer,” even though he was really a part of the Beat-era scene. During the San Francisco psychedelic heyday, Brautigan dodged the incoming horde of hippies and instead aligned himself with the “everything should be free” street socialism of Emmett Grogan and the hoodlums-turned-Robin-Hoods known as The Diggers. Brautigan hated sixties drug use (although he drank like a, uh, fish), and abhorred the mandatory and sometimes-aimlessly stoned defiance of the middle class flower children who apparently sidestepped the brutal poverty he had endured as a child. Brautigan’s lifelong obsession with fishing stemmed from the fact that it was one of the ways he avoided starvation when he was a boy.
His childhood in Oregon was populated with a series of stepfathers, some loving, others abusive. One of them, a short order cook, was left to watch his blond-headed stepson but needed to go to work. His solution? He tied the-then-four-year-old Brautigan to a bedpost with a length of rope. Years later, Brautigan recalled that he had just enough slack to walk to the bathroom, and, most importantly, stare out the window at the street below. Brautigan spent half his youth roaming the woods with fishing rod in hand; the other half was devoted to reading and trying to figure out how to write.
Increasingly moody and erratic, in his early adulthood he threw a brick through a police station window, a senseless act that landed him in a state mental hospital where he was rewarded with a series of electro-shock treatments. Brautigan eventually scrambled down to San Francisco. In the course of a decade, he honed his writing skills and established himself in that literary and bohemian scene.
For all of his eccentricities, Brautigan was a disciplined writer and spent long hours narrowing down his poems, stories, and novels into tightly edited works. After the publication of “Trout Fishing,” he enjoyed an immediate success that went directly to his head and liver. His drinking increased as did his sense of self-importance, two factors that would seemingly destroy him.
From the beginning of the tale, Brautigan comes across as being hard-wired from birth and totally programmed for a life of complete awkwardness. Maybe spending so much time alone as a youth simply spilled over into his inability to be around other people; he had little, if any, socialization skills. An undercurrent of loneliness, paranoia, and eventual misanthropy seemed to direct his every move and possibly explains his ability to capture such somber and poignant realizations about life, particularly in his short stories. Brautigan was, if nothing else, a master of exploring the sensorial and interior experience of being alone. He was a keen observer since he failed in participation.
Regardless of his questionable approach to relationships — a cadre of lovers and “best friends” suddenly arrive in the narrative and are dismissed just as quickly, moving to the “enemy” column of the page — he attracted a fascinating group of acquaintances that reads like a roster of twentieth century creative types and fellow loose screws. This list includes (in no particular order): Thomas and Becky McGuane, Robert and Bobbie Creeley, Lenore Kandel, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Rip Torn, Bruce Conner, The Hell’s Angels, Russell Chatham, a handful of contemporary Japanese novelists I am completely unfamiliar with, various publishing figures from that era, Allen Ginsberg, Jeff Bridges, Peter Fonda, Philip Whalen, Sam Peckinpah…just a stream of unrelated cameos that zip in and out of Brautigan’s life. By the end of the book, Brautigan was severing ties with everyone. Many later paragraphs end with: “After they met in ___, this was this last time ___ would ever see Brautigan.”
Alcoholism was a constant companion. Calvados and bourbon are served up straight and drench nearly every page. Some of Brautigan’s drunken hijinks were based on Dadaist playfulness, like toting around a paper-mache bird called Willard; others, including leveling a shotgun at a hapless Wim Wenders, are downright horrifying. While the quarts of whiskey never seemed to diminish Brautigan’s writing, the booze surely helped transform him into one ornery sonofabitch and delusional egomaniac.
During the late seventies and early eighties, Brautigan’s arc as a literary star plummeted but he continued to write albeit with bizarre results. An obsessive scribbler in journals, Brautigan would document the world around him, sometimes in his brief poems, at other times writing out the minutiae of the items populating his hotel rooms. A magazine assignment about super models in Japan became the 179 stream-of-consciousness-screed, “The Fate of a West German Model in Tokyo.” It remains unpublished. A treatment for a surreal television pilot, titled “Timber Wolves,” precedes David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks” by fifteen years for what would have surely been the most fucked up thing ever aired on the small screen.
Brautigan punctuated his life with a gun blast in his home in Bolinas, California. The house was rumored to be haunted by the ghost by a young Chinese girl so she might have acquired an unwanted guest. Hjortsberg actually begins the book with the mop up and aftermath of the 49-year-old writer’s suicide, so for the uninitiated this becomes the ultimate spoiler alert as to the unavoidable path of “Jubilee.”
In a journal entry written near the end of his life, Brautigan acknowledged, “My chief character flaws have been alcoholism, insomnia, and eternal desire.” Whether this was a moment of humble clarity or a justification for decades of daredevil writing jags, enigmatic observations about reality, and crashing mood swings is probably on the shoulders of the reader.
I have read other reminiscences and works about Brautigan, some penned by friends, others by scholars. His daughter Ianthe Brautigan’s memoir, “You Can’t Catch Death,” is surely both a heartfelt and disturbing remembrance and the best place to start. While Brautigan is surely a heroic figure in my own pantheon of nutty people, I knocked him off the pedestal years ago. I’m too agitated for prolonged worship. Hjortsberg’s book reminds me why I held him in such grand regard as well as the subsequent removal of the crotchety author from my shrine. Without question, I still think Brautigan is one of the greatest short story writers of the 20th century and invented a style that is hermetically-sealed; to write like Brautigan draws an instant comparison to him. Which might be another sort of epitaph and possible finish line for his drunken, sleepless, “eternal desire” to find rest.
His influence is great enough that I have written three previous book reviews, all of them published, yet felt compelled to write this fourth “review” in a mad, hurried dash for no apparent reason other than to maybe brag that I finished reading this gargantuan fucking book.
Daniel A Brown
I really liked this review, Dan. I too loved “Trout Fishing” and some of his other works when I was a kid. When I go back to some of them occasionally, “Trout Fishing” still stands up, though others, like “In Watermelon Sugar” now seem really immature emotionally and artistically. A few years ago, I read Ianthe Brautigan’s book and it broke my heart. I think I might like to inch my way through Hjortsberg’s book at some point. Thanks for introducing it.
Thanks, Tim. Sorry for the year-plus-long reply. I was languidly mulling over my response. Ha!
Yeah, I agree. As much as some of Brautigan’s work is timeless, much if it has “timed out.”
And Ianthe’s book really is a remarkable, and I agree – heartbreaking – read.
I appreciate your comments and hope you do read that bad boy.